Can new technologies help track resilience?

Article published origionally at Thompson Reuters Foundation 

Measuring resilience isn’t cheap or easy – but using mobile phones to reach people on the move can help with both problems

Climate extremes are in the headlines yet again. From the devastation of typhoon Mangkhut in Southeast Asia to Greek wildfires earlier in the year, timely reminders of the importance of resilience-building can be seen everywhere.

It’s therefore reassuring to see resilience quickly climbing to the top of the global development agenda. A $100 million investment by the Global Resilience Partnership and the British government’s £140 million commitment under the  Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes (BRACED) programme are just two examples of development funders scrambling to launch well-resourced initiatives.

Yet with new-found fame comes new challenges. In particular, how should resilience be tracked and measured?

For a start, no one can agree on a definition for resilience. More importantly, no single recipe exists for supporting the resilience of people and communities across the globe. Factors that help elderly individuals cope with the UK’s ongoing heatwave won’t necessarily be the same as those that support Indian slum-dwellers to deal with recent monsoon flooding.

To make matters harder, collecting information on resilience is costly and time-consuming. With limited resources dedicated to evaluation, most of our current understanding of resilience comes from one-off snap-shots: surveys taken at a single point in time.

These challenges are forcing evaluators to turn to new and unconventional ways of tracking resilience on the ground.

One example is Flowminder, an institute that uses Big Data to map how people respond to disasters. As Cyclone Mahesen came barrelling through Bangladesh in 2013, researchers were able to use anonymised phone records to track people’s movements after the disaster. This allowed unprecedented insights into how long it took people to recover and how people reacted to early warning messages.

Tech-enabled innovations like this are just the tip of the iceberg. A new report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) looks at another effort to use mobile phones to gather information on the ground – except instead of tracking people’s movements, researchers use the phones to remotely collect survey data, feeding it back in near-real time.

The team handed out phones and solar chargers to 1,200 individuals in eastern Myanmar. They then set up a small call centre run by a team in nearby Yangon, allowing individuals to be remotely contacted and surveyed every month. After extensive monsoon flooding hit the region in 2016, researchers were able to collect information on how people were coping with the floods up to 12 months later – something that would be far too costly to do using traditional household surveys.

Findings from the mobile phone survey, run by the BRACED progamme, are shedding new light on how we understand resilience.

For one, resilience has long been thought of as largely constant. The Myanmar research turns this perspective on its head, revealing resilience to be a process constantly in flux. Using the mobile phones to track levels of resilience over time shows that it fluctuates significantly after a disaster. In the case of villages surveyed, levels plunged up to six months after the floods, before rebounding rapidly and plateauing up to ten months later.

Using this kind of information to calculate the length of recovery is unprecedented and can arm development actors with valuable information in improving the effectiveness of their activities on the ground.

The surveys also show how flooding wreaks havoc not only for those directly in harm’s way, but all households in the nearby vicinity – even those that self-report as unaffected. Development actors should pay close attention: limiting resilience-building interventions to those physically affected by climate hazards may put those living around them at considerable risk.

Innovations are showcasing the power of technology in unlocking resilience. Not only do mobile surveys like those applied in Myanmar offer unparalleled opportunities to collect survey information at a fraction of the cost of normal face-to-face surveys, they also allow for data to be collected remotely when people are on the move. This is especially useful in post-disaster environments where people are often forced to relocate at short notice, or where it may be unsafe for survey teams to gain access.

While tech-enabled solutions are not a miracle cure, they offer clear opportunities in addressing some of the challenges of traditional measurement approaches. Indeed, as the UN’s secretary general, Antonio Guterres, proudly announces that resilience will be one of the central tenets of his upcoming Climate Summit in 2019, we still don’t know whether billions of pounds worth of resilience funding are having real impact.

Promoting innovation and new ideas in tracking resilience may mean that answering this question is no longer a guessing game.

The best way to measure a household’s resilience? Ask those who live there

Article published origionally at the Guardian

Image: Internews Europe

A new study challenges the traditional assumption that experts are best placed to evaluate how well people could cope with and adapt to an emergency

The concept of “resilience” is taking development and humanitarian sectors by storm. Huge amounts of finance are being channelled into “resilience-building” activities, aimed at supporting people and communities to deal more effectively with climate extremes, financial shocks and the many other risks that threaten lives and livelihoods.

Given the pressure on NGOs, governments and donors to demonstrate value for money and support the right people and activities, the race is on to find the best ways of measuring resilience.

Normally, the first step in designing a method for resilience measurement is to consult a group of experts, who consider the assets and capacities that make a household robust. They typically come up with a number of indicators, which can consist of anything from household income and child nutrition to social networks and access to financial capital. Each indicator and characteristic is then mashed together and weighted, often resulting in a single overall score.

While useful, these approaches make a critical assumption: that experts are best placed to evaluate someone else’s resilience. In a new paper for the Overseas Development Institute, we challenge that assumption and propose an alternative approach that has been largely overlooked, but may help to address many of the challenges associated with traditional ways of measuring resilience.

The approach is called subjective resilience, and it starts from the premise that most people have a good understanding of the factors that contribute to their own ability to cope with and adapt to emergencies.

People are asked to consider the factors contributing to their livelihoods and judge how resilient they consider their household to be to given threats. They are also asked to suggest ways to enhance their resilience.

To test the approach, a consortium of international NGOs and research organisations under the Global Resilience Partnership teamed up with Twaweza, an east African movement working to give citizens more power, to speak to 1,300 households across Tanzania, asking people to evaluate their ability to cope with and adapt to the risk of future flooding.

The method used to collect data was also quite unique. Face-to-face interviews were done with people in households from the shores of the Indian Ocean to the Serengeti. Each person was then given a mobile phone and a solar charger, and every few months a call centre rang the same people to ask a series of questions. The answers were then analysed to give accurate and nationally representative information and the whole process was cheaper and easier than traditional surveys.

Given that surveys relating to subjective resilience tend to be shorter than objective ways of measuring resilience (which can often be more than 100 questions long), the approach lends itself to data collection of all kinds across Africa.

Initial results suggest that many of the factors that experts associate with a person’s resilience may not be as important as they had assumed. Factors such as level of education, livelihood, or age have some effect on people’s perceived resilience, but relationships are not as strong as one might traditionally expect. Other factors, like gender, have no apparent impact on evaluations of household resilience, even among female-headed households (typically considered to be one of the most vulnerable groups). Unsurprisingly, the strongest predictor of resilience is wealth and level of income.

While the research is in its early stages, and more work needs to be done to test and develop subjective methods, what we have seen so far raises questions as to whether the indicators we equate with resilience are the right ones.

Above all, subjective assessment has the potential to radically change the way that we track resilience and hold governments and civil society to account.

It allows for a bottom-up way of judging the effectiveness of resilience-building initiatives based on the perspectives of the people that matter most: those who are vulnerable and receiving support. One interesting finding from the Tanzania survey was that those who received early warning information about floods rated themselves as far more resilient than those who hadn’t. This suggests that the considerable efforts to support dissemination of weather forecasts and alerts in east Africa may be paying off.

This approach could be used to assess the effectiveness of investments and projects from the perspective of the people benefiting from them. If we listen to their collective voices, we might be better able to hold NGOs, businesses and governments to account.

The same tools could also be applied to evaluate national or international resilience-building initiatives: a difficult feat so far. If international commitments, such as the sustainable development goals, are taken seriously and policies implemented to achieve them, then it is only reasonable to expect a marked difference in how resilient local people perceive themselves to be.

It is clear that subjective assessments are not without weaknesses. People aren’t always aware of all the factors that make them resilient, and some may choose to answer questions inaccurately in order to gain from the outcome of the survey, particularly if there is an assumption that the survey is linked to NGO or government assistance. However, many of the biases can be accounted for by thorough research design and by providing clear information on how the data will be used. Confidence can be taken from the success of similar approaches in other fields, such as subjective wellbeing.

Ultimately, collecting information on subjective resilience isn’t meant to replace traditional measurement entirely. Rather, bottom-up subjective methods should be used alongside objective methods, helping to capture the components of resilience that are difficult to observe and allow people’s perspectives to be heard.

If we can get the measurement process right, this will be an important step forward in gaining a more holistic understanding of what it takes for a household to be resilient to the many risks and threats it faces.

Sub-Saharan African countries are failing to plan for climate change

Article published origionally at the Guardian

Image: Ninara

Failure to factor climate change into long-term investment and planning risks leaving countries across sub-Saharan vulnerable to droughts, floods, heatwaves and rising sea-levels

Communities around the world are feeling the impacts of climate change already, but many of the most severe effects will be felt in the decades to come, particularly from mid-century onwards. Nowhere is this more apparent than in sub-Saharan Africa which will be one of the hardest hit regions of the world.

Right now, African countries are busy investing in infrastructure and development to help support current economic growth. Many of these long-lived investments – such as ports, large dams, and social infrastructure, such as hospitals and schools – will most likely last well beyond 2050. But by then, Africa’s climate may look quite different to what it does today. Factoring climate change into long-term investments and planning decisions is essential for supporting climate-resilient development – but it’s not happening.

New research, coordinated by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), shows that governments and businesses across sub-Saharan Africa are failing to consider long-term climate information in their investments and planning decisions. This includes studies from Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda, Ghana and Mozambique. The worst case scenario is that poor use of climate information could lock societies into patterns that make them highly vulnerable to droughts, floods, high temperatures or sea-level rise in the future.

Why do decision-makers have this blind spot? First and most importantly, other challenges such as eradicating poverty and promoting access to primary and secondary education are extremely pressing, forcing decision-makers to think and act in short time frames.

Secondly, long-term climate information is often ill-suited to informing local economic, social and environmental contexts in sub-Saharan Africa.

Knowing what the average temperature in 2050 will be for rural Nakuru County, Kenya, is of little practical use. What decision makers really want to know is how higher temperatures are likely to influence water resource availability or crop yields: outcomes that affect local people most. But what decision makers ask for is not often technically possible as there is a lack of information that combines knowledge of future climate with other disciplines such as hydrology or ecology.

There is also a communication mismatch between the producers and users of climate information. The information delivered to decision-makers is often overly technical and easy to misinterpret. Likewise, decision-makers’ needs are rarely fed back to climate scientists.

So what should be done to address this?

Perhaps the most obvious starting point is enhancing the quality and quantity of African climate observation networks and scientific capacity in sub-Saharan Africa. Not only will this help to establish information about past and current climates, it will also help to ‘ground-truth’ climate science by generating local knowledge, perspectives and expertise. Also, these people will be able to act as intermediaries among scientists, policy-makers and practitioners and help with presenting climate information in a format that decision-makers can act upon.

Spending time and resources to understand the local political context, and engaging with local partners, can also help funders and knowledge brokers to communicate climate information more effectively. Above all, funding for climate-related programmes in sub-Saharan Africa needs to shift away from short funding cycles, rigid structures and targets, and donor-driven agendas, and move towards longer-term partnerships between international and national partners.

Importantly, climate information has to be taken up by the people and policies that matter most. Adaptation to climate change still falls under the mandate of ministries such as environment or natural resource management, which are relatively weak in governments. It is only when influential ministries, such as those responsible for economic growth and development, have the incentive and responsibility to act on climate-related issues that effective action occurs.

A large part of this is engaging with high-level ‘champions’ to drive the climate agenda forward. These champions are often vital in gaining legitimacy for climate change discussions and overcoming political obstacles to the use of climate information. In Rwanda, president Paul Kagame’s strong backing for national action on climate change, alongside involvement from relevant ministries, led to climate change being at the heart of the country’s development planning processes.

Lastly, the research raises a number of ethical challenges. Is it justifiable to push for a long-term development agenda in places where addressing current concerns, such as meeting basic economic needs and promoting the wellbeing and development of local communities, is a higher priority? Should we be pushing a long-term agenda where there is little immediate appetite or demand? Sadly, few donors, development agencies or governments are willing to address these questions.

A failure to promote honest and transparent communication of climate information can therefore only result in a further push-back from local decision makers, continuing to put vital infrastructure and long-term development in Sub-Saharan Africa at risk of future climate change.

Are we jumping the gun in trying to measure adaptation?

Article originally published at ODI Blogs

Image: ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓

A clear and concise methodology for measuring adaptation to climate change has yet to emerge. But the need for it is clear.

With the impacts of climate change threatening to undermine development objectives and substantial pots of money being committed to support adaptation, evaluating the impact and effectiveness of adaptation interventions is paramount. The UK government for one has committed £2.9 billion for 2011-2015, a balanced proportion of which is thought to be earmarked for adaptation, and many other countries have committed through so-called ‘fast-start climate finance’.

Why is there no agreement?

To start with, we have to realise that assessing and understanding adaptation, and the processes that shape it, is incredibly complex.

Ahead of the fifth Community Based Adaptation (CBA5) conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 28 March, I focus here on measuring the adaptive capacity at the local level. A number of useful early attempts have been made– most maintaining strong links with the sustainable livelihoods framework (SL) and its five capitals (human, financial, social, natural and physical), with many simply measuring the abundance of each capital as direct indicators for adaptive capacity. These make the assumption that the principles of sustainable livelihoods are identical to those needed to adapt to a changing climate.

However, it’s important to realise that there is no agreement about the characteristics and indicators that support adaptive capacity. While true that the SL’s five capitals are, to a large extent needed to facilitate adaptation, this does not give a complete picture of the complex processes that determine adaptive capacity and support adaptation actions.

So have we been too keen in trying to measure something that we don’t yet fully understand?

In some ways the answer is yes, as little empirical research has actually been done to characterise adaptive capacity. This is where the Africa Climate Change Resilience Alliance (ACCRA) is trying to add clarity to the debate. The project looks to use evidence-based research to explore the characteristics of adaptive capacity at the community level, using Ethiopia, Mozambique and Uganda as case studies. As part of this, we at ODI have reviewed existing methods and built on pilot consultations within the three countries as part of the ACCRA consortium to present the Local Adaptive Capacity framework (LAC).

Preliminary findings from the project point to five common characteristics of adaptive capacity, which make up the core of the LAC framework. These are: a diverse asset base; appropriate and fair institutions and entitlements; access to relevant knowledge and information; an enabling environment that fosters innovation; and flexible forward-looking governance and decision-making processes. These characteristics are thought to be conducive to supporting local communities in enhancing their adaptive capacities. The conceptual basis behind these five characteristics and their applications are explored in further detail in a recent ODI report.

The first thing that’s striking about the five characteristics is that many of them are actually processes, and not simply assets. This contrasts with traditional methods of measuring adaptive capacity and suggests that solely focusing on the SL’s five assets as indicators is unlikely to provide a holistic view of adaptation. It is therefore important to realise that adaptive capacity is as much about what a community does that enables it to adapt, than what a community has that allows it to adapt. The reason that this distinction is important is because how we measure adaptation will ultimately guide how we design interventions aimed at supporting it, and may skew the focus of project interventions.

What can we learn from ACCRA’s research?

Most importantly, perhaps, is that before we dive head-first into trying to monitor and evaluate adaptation at the community level, we must ensure that we base our M&E on a firmer understanding of the characteristics and indicators of adaptive capacity. This would also enable us to see how certain wider development interventions – many of which may not have been designed with climate change in mind, such as social protection or livelihoods programmes – are contributing to characteristics of adaptive capacity. Fortunately, a number of other research institutes are complementing ODI’s work on ACCRA, and attempting to step back and explore these issues in more detail. Through efforts like these, we are gathering a stronger evidence base for measuring adaptive capacity at the community level, and understanding the importance of processes in supporting adaptation. Reassuringly, this knowledge and information not only has uses in refining M&E indictors, but it can also pave the way for better operationalisation of programming for NGO, civil society and policy-makers.

These actions will prove a useful step forwards in improving our understanding of complex process of adaptation, and ultimately aid the delivery of assistance to those most in need and most vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate.

The (not so) easy task of translating research into policy and practice

Article originally published at Research to Action 

Image: Alper Çuğun

How can research feed into development policy and support positive change? This question remains critical to the development research community, and attempts to answer it often rest on understanding the roles, interactions and incentives between the many different actors in the research to policy process.

The challenge of answering it was recently put to a group of influential researchers, practitioners and policy-makers at a ‘sandpit’ event in Nairobi (6th-8th September 2012). Similar to the CDKN’s Action Lab, the event took a speed dating approach and had a specific focus on climate change and conflict. Participants were tasked with developing group proposals that combine cutting-edge scientific research with innovative capacity building tools and evidence of policy uptake.

The hope was to share knowledge and ideas, develop new networks, and (above all) encourage healthy completion in applying for the upcoming Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of Climate Change (CCMCC) call. Emphasis was on linking different skill sets and ensuring their research has the maximum impact on the ground (i.e. more than just resulting in academic papers and other research outputs).

Numerous consortia quickly took shape. A wide range of interesting issues were discussed and proposed, such as: what are the impacts of climate change (and climate policies) on conflict affected areas? Are there tipping points between cooperation and conflict? And what can we do to effectively build the resilience of poor communities in fragile states (is resilience in fragile states even the same as in other contexts)?

Brilliant minds, influential people, and cutting-edge questions: surely a quick-win recipe for meaningful change? Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. It quickly became clear that what was being asked was more ambitious than many participants had previously envisaged.

Research to policy to practice: a logical chain?

The development sector revolves around the principle that better use of research and evidence in policy and practice can help save lives, reduce poverty and improve quality of life. Yet, applying research to guide and inform the development sector’s many actors (from donors and researchers to NGOs and policy makers) and shaping the policy agenda is a difficult task – for more see the work of ODI’s Research and Policy in Development programme.

In practice, academic research typically has little influence on policy. When it does, it’s far more complex than the linear model of research-informing-policy-leading-to-change-on-the-groundWhy? One reason emerged above all others in discussions at the CCMCC sandpit:

Perverse incentives

It may not always be evident, but traditional systems for incentivising and evaluating academics (i.e. measuring their success) are largely incompatible with practitioners needs and often discourage the integration of research into policy and practice. For example, the success of a university academic – say a professor – is primarily measured against the number of peer-reviewed journal articles he/she produces, and the number of times those papers are cited by their peers (typically other university academics). Yet academic articles rarely feature on a policy-maker’s radar. If they do, they are often found behind an expensive paywall.

What’s more, research often comes in a language that is incomprehensible to many policy-makers. Often technical research needs to be translated into practical and engaging recommendations that communicates uncertainties and relates strongly to a policy-maker’s decision-making environment. Yet shorter non-technical outputs like policy briefs, blogs and other forms of grey literature are rarely recognised or rewarded from an academic’s perspective.

Blame is not only attributable to the system of producing and communicating research. From a policy perspective, research is supposed to feed into decision-making and planning. However, few developing countries have been able to equip their technical officers with the resources and networks to be able to translate new research into policy relevant actions for key decision-makers (say a head district government).

New approaches to capacity building

And what about using research to support capacity building of policy-makers? Well one is thing is clear: creating better links between research and policy will require innovation and thinking outside of the box. The standard model for communicating development research to policy makers has long been to host a workshop. As part of this model, decision-makers are introduced to countless conceptual frameworks and receive guidance on the latest development interests (whether it’s climate change, water and sanitation, or maternal health care). It’s typically a one-way knowledge sharing process, and rarely does it result in practical change (unless there are clear financial incentives to do so). ‘Workshop fatigue’ is a real issue. Researchers looking to support capacity building and influence policy are therefore required to try new approaches if they want to demonstrate real change. One example is to trial other forms of experiential learning, like ‘policy-gaming’. Other innovations are desperately needed.

An ambitious future for development research

Thankfully, there are signs of change. The CoCoon call is a brilliant example of this: bringing together different members of the development community that rarely interact directly and asking them to design (and document) a research process that will build capacity and translate into policy change. CDKN has similar objectives with its research calls, requiring applicants to provide evidence for the demand of their research from policy-makers themselves.  

As members of the CoCoon event were quick to point out, asking researchers to do all of this together as one package is an ambitious task. It’s a task that rarely receives sufficient financial resources to do all components effectively – from research design, to innovative capacity building, to M&E of impact. However, until the right incentives structures are created, and entry points for collaboration strengthened, change will not happen. The lead taken by CoCoon, CDKN and others is hoping to incentivise this change and instil new ways of translating research into policy and practice.